The first episode of this series opened with a diarrhoeal dog, and the excremental theme was maintained throughout. Later we were treated to a vomiting cat, and to a scene which took place in two adjacent toilet cubicles. The protagonists swore constantly at one another, and at their life circumstances in general.
However, my reason for watching “Way to Go” was not in order to comment on whether or not it is in good taste, nor even on whether or not it is funny. My concern is with its use of the theme of suicide; in particular assisted suicide; in particular, with the following questions:
1. Is it likely to encourage suicides among those watching it?
2. Does it promote a view of assisted suicide as being acceptable and perhaps even desirable?
As to the first question: the protagonists being in their twenties, I would guess that the series is aimed at, and will probably be watched by, roughly the same age group. While I have not been able to find statistics for this age-group in particular (but only for the 15 – 45 age group), teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to suggestion. An article in the Observer (Sunday 1st March 2009) explored issues arising from the cluster of teenage suicides occurring in south Wales during 2008, and reported that “Professor Keith Hawton, head of the Oxford Centre for Suicide Research, the leading UK institution and probably the world's greatest authority on suicide and the media, describes the evidence for a link between the two as "overwhelming". Research has repeatedly shown that reporting by media may facilitate suicidal acts among vulnerable individuals. And that the most vulnerable are the young”.
It would therefore seem, at the very least, irresponsible of the BBC to air a series on the theme of suicide, a series likely to be watched by a group recognised as being vulnerable.
As for the second question – whether “Way to Go” promotes a positive view of assisted suicide as something which society should tolerate and even encourage – the answer to this question has far-reaching implications, since the BBC’s charter requires it to be impartial. The BBC itself commissioned a report (which came out in 2007), on “Safeguarding impartiality in the twenty-first century”, which draws the conclusion that “Impartiality is most obviously at risk in areas of sharp public controversy. But there is a less visible risk, demanding particular vigilance, when programmes purport to reflect a consensus for ‘the common good’ or become involved in controversies”.
In the UK at the present time, it is against the law to help someone else to commit suicide. However, there have been a number of cases in recent years where people have been helped to travel from the UK to the “Dignitas” clinic in Switzerland for an assisted suicide, where this fact has been publicised, and where no prosecutions have taken place. There have also been several formal attempts to change existing law; these have all been defeated in parliament. The BBC has already aired more than one “serious” programme in which the desirability of legalising assisted suicide has been considered, and in which impartiality did not seem to be observed.
In “Way to Go” we are introduced to Paddy, next-door neighbour to one of the protagonists, a cheerful and likeable character suffering from a progressive and terminal illness. He wants to achieve his own death rather than wait until the illness claims him, and to this end asks his neighbour to kill him. Although Paddy is supposed to be ill, we see him active and independent, and I am mystified as to why he thinks he needs someone else to kill him rather than do the deed for himself in any one of a number of ways which I have no intention of spelling out. However, suspending disbelief I continue to watch, and after a time Paddy states his reasons for wanting to die. These are:
“I’ve lived the life I want to live, I want to go the way I want to go”
“This way, I dictate what happens to my life.”
These comments stand out from the rest of the obscenity-filled dialogue, little nuggets of “philosophy”, like small but powerful pharmaceutical doses buried in a great deal of comedic sugar-coating. They echo a statement made by one of the would-be suicides in the BBC’s “Choosing to die” programme (BBC 2, June 2011) “I should like to have a death which is comfortable, painless, - and why shouldn’t I?” (that person, it was later reported, had indeed died in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, - but his death was long-drawn-out and very uncomfortable since his body fought the poison for well over half an hour. The BBC did not show this death nor provide any information about it; it was reported subsequently in some British newspapers). Ludwig Minelli, director of the clinic, echoed his client’s “Why shouldn’t I”, going on to talk grandly about human rights. There are a number of very good reasons why a right to be killed should not be recognised and used as a basis for legislation, mainly relating to the likely effects of such legislation on society as a whole.
Indeed, the “I’m gonna do what I want to do” philosophy crept into sub-plots in “Way to Go”, in ways which demonstrate just what a devastating effect it can have in other areas than suicide, though I don’t imagine the programme makers recognised the connection. In the middle of a (decidedly joyless) sexual act, the girlfriend of one of the protagonists informs him that she has found “someone else” and will therefore be leaving him. He is distraught; but she is, after all, only doing what she wants to do. Another of the protagonists is similarly distraught when he becomes convinced that his girlfriend is seeking to switch partners (which in fact, she is not); again, the “I’ll do what I want to do” philosophy is shown up as a cause of extreme emotional distress within a relationship which is necessarily unstable if either of the partners feels they are free to end it just because they “want to”. Suicide also can have devastating negative effects on others.
Paddy having been euthanased (quickly, neatly and comfortably – why can’t Dignitas do it like that?), a further candidate for the suicide machine is mentioned at the end of the episode, - someone with terminal cancer. A brief scene in a care home for the elderly (a scene which did nothing at all for the dignity of the said elderly people, who are shown pathetically trying to keep up with an exercise demonstration) leads me to suspect that this will be another source of at least one would-be suicide. The series will probably select candidates who have no friends or family (at least, none who will seriously grieve for them), who are not vulnerable to being pressurised into seeking a premature death, and who can look back on a good few decades of satisfactory life, so that the tragedy of a young life being terminated will not arise. Or possibly there will be one younger person, seeking death as a flight from unhappy life circumstances, and the protagonists (good people at heart) will successfully persuade that one person to give life another chance.
The actual facts about those seriously seeking to end their lives (according to the World Health Organisation) are that more than 90% of them have associated mental health disorders, particularly depression and substance abuse; and that “triggers” for suicide tend to occur “during periods of socioeconomic, family and individual crisis (e.g. loss of a loved one, unemployment, sexual orientation, difficulties with developing one's identity, disassociation from one's community or other social/belief group, and honour)” – see befrienders
In other words, most of them are not like Paddy.
In fairness to the programme makers, I must admit to having laughed twice (yes, only twice), - once in response to some rapid repartee:
“Let me have 8 grand – I really need 8 grand – go on, I’m your brother”
“All right, 4 grand”
The other laugh was when the suicide machine, cobbled together from a redundant drinks dispenser and some medical equipment, produces a mysterious green fluid, explained by: “It’s residue. It was St. Patrick’s day last week”.
I also winced once, - when one of the protagonists had his finger broken by a debt collector.
By the Prayer Crusader with: St Theresa of Avila